Archive | August, 2010

League of Faith

29 Aug

The doom merchants were quick off the mark after Tottenham’s inability to put Wigan to the sword at White Hart Lane yesterday. “How can a team that has qualified for the Champions League hope to compete on four fronts if they cannot win ugly on a regular basis?” was the tone of many pundits and commentators. However, having invested the best part of a quarter of a century into supporting this team, I like many other Spurs fans I’m sure, probably knew that such a slip-up was inevitable. Spurs have never been a club that do it the easy way and a return of one win, one draw and one defeat in our opening three league matches suggests that they will continue to enthrall and infuriate loyalists in much the same manner that they have done by and large since the club’s heyday in the early 1960s.

As qualification for the continent’s premier club competition was cemented on Wednesday night, ITV’s Peter Drury rattled off a catalogue of former greats who have graced the pitch at N17 but had not fulfilled their promise on the biggest stage of all in the club’s famous white strip. Gascoigne, Waddle and Hoddle, Lineker, Ardiles, Crooks and Archibald, Gilzean, Ginola and Perryman; all players who had thrilled and served the club with honour and skill and who have mostly played within my living memory. Thinking of these names conjures such joyous images in the mind as if flicking through a photo album in your mind’s eye and it is with some wistful sighs that you realise that however good these players were, they were rightly playing in an era when the country’s champions were represented at that level only and as a result being in a team as famously inconsistent as Spurs consequently obstructed any such dazzling Glory Glory Nights at the old stadium.

The passage of time allows for such objective analysis and it is easier at the age of thirty-two to be able to acknowledge both strengths and shortcomings in both one’s choice of football team and more tellingly in one’s self. The greatest observation my father ever made was when he told me aged twelve that I was “a fanatic, not a fan”. At the time I wasn’t able to fully comprehend what he meant but it’s become ever more clear with the passing of the years that what he was alluding to was that such uncompromising belief in the greatness of one’s team and their inevitable path to glory merely serves to hinder one’s ability to appreciate the strengths and variations provided by those around you. At the time I was immersed in ‘Gazzamania’ and could not see why Spurs were not destined to win the League despite comprising a team which also included such ‘luminaries’ as David Howells, Vinny Samways and Steve Sedgeley. Gascoigne’s greatness would indeed pull us through to eventual glory in the 1991 FA Cup Final but however good a player he was, it would be impossible to sustain such levels of outrageous skill and genius throughout a season of 40 plus games. I appreciate this reality nowadays and I always listen on with bemusement when I hear fans of say Barnet or Gillingham telling rival fans that they “are by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”.

As a result of this blind faith, I was unable to truly appreciate the players that enriched the English League in my teens. During the 90s it was voguish to spit bile and vitriol on anything or anyone associated with Manchester United. Consequently, a lot of time was wasted ‘hating’ the likes of Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Steve Bruce. It simply wasn’t socially acceptable to show an appreciation for the style of football played by this legendary team and it is only now when you watch compilation packages of games from the 90s and that these men have become as avuncular as any uncle figure that you wish you were just a little less rabid and a little more gracious in your younger years.

When we fail to question accepted views and allow our faith in one belief system to rule our ability to come to rational conclusions, we run the very grave risk of falling into areas less seemingly trivial as our support for a particular football team. While channel surfing this week, I came across a quintet of singers on Fox News called 4Troops. This is a group comprising of ex-soldiers in the US military, representing racial and gender demographics, singing a clutch of patriotic tub-thumping tunes for mass consumption in the Wal-Marts populating the USA’s midwest. With mouth agape, I sat through their latest release called “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, a rallying call for Americans and warning shot to its enemies with such open-minded and articulate lyrical flourishes as “justice will be served and the battle will rage/ this big dog will fight if you rattle his cage/you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U S of A/ cos we will will never back down, it’s the American way”.

It is even more frightening when the tune itself is a mixture of uplifting handclaps and harmonies and spares little thought for any rational understanding for the reality that befell British and American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and disregards the historical reasons and economic realities of the Project for the New American Century. But that really isn’t the kind of agenda Fox News wishes to pursue. If we as a human race are content to live in ignorance and blindly accept what we are told, whether that be from a politician, a mullah or a football manager, we run the risk of turning into the fanatics my father, wisely warned me against. Knowledge may be a curse but ignorance is so much worse.

So with that in mind, I’m able to look upon Spurs’ impending Champions League campaign as the beginning of a glorious adventure. We will play the reigning European Champions twice. But we will definitely not be at Wembley in May’s Final. Because experience tells me it’s appreciating the journey rather than the blind pursuit of some imaginary glory that is the true, most gratifying aspect of being a Spurs fan. And Arsenal looked good too this weekend. Now that’s maturity…


Chelsea Dagger

22 Aug

Chelsea are simply awesome. Not awesome in the way a teenager were to describe the definition of ‘cool’ but awesome in the sense that their wanton goal sprees against West Brom and Wigan have left many people shaking their heads in wonder and with an impending dread for the months that will unfold. It has left no doubt that the Premier League is merely a series of mismatches between expensively acquired and technically assured Goliaths and expensively acquired but nevertheless limited Davids. Can anything further be read into Blackpool’s annihilation by Arsenal at the Emirates after their opening day jubilation, other then a sense that this is a League comprising a small elite of technocrats and artisans putting lesser mortals to the sword on a weekly basis?

The arguments for parity are worthy. If there was a cap on how much a club can spend on new players or what they pay their current staff, perhaps we would see a more level playing field. Players would consequently make their career choices based on a club’s prestige and history rather than the promise of weekly fortunes and extravagant luxuries. Or they might even seek the challenge of playing for an unfashionable side and see how far such an endeavour would take them? A West Ham supporting friend of mine this week lamented the club’s current predicament when compared to the truly exciting clutch of young players that came up through their ranks in the early part of the last decade. He was clear in his belief that had the likes of Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, and Frank Lampard stuck around and developed a sense of team loyalty and a sense of thumbing their noses at the bigger beasts, then maybe the club’s recent history would have been very different to the stagnant quagmire they currently reside him.

As ever though, these players left for the twin promises of riches and trophies. And when these can be easily achieved at clubs with greater and more tellingly faster means to attain honours and bankroll expensive lifestyles, young men who are brought up in a culture which lauds the swiftness with which success is attained will always go for the easier option. It is no accident that the X Factor has returned to our screens this week, as eagerly anticipated as ever with its illusions of fame and celebrity whilst Big Brother reaches its climax with a showdown comprising the ‘best’ housemates in its infamous history all eager to squeeze a last ounce of fame juice from their brief moments in the public glare.

If we were to be truly honest about the reality of equality, we would realise that Blackpool and Wigan and West Brom will never be considered equals by broadcasters or football writers. Firstly, because these are provincial clubs that have no international appeal and therefore cannot be marketed with any great zeal to the hungry markets of Asia and North America. But more importantly, these clubs cannot be accepted or compete at the big table because as a species, human beings have a need to order the world along hierarchical perspectives. So as I mentioned last week, the Premier League can be easily divided into a series of mini-leagues and at the top of the pyramid we have the twin juggernauts of Manchester United and Chelsea.

When we have all-out dominance by an individual or ideology, we as human beings justifiably cry foul. Hence the inherent unfairness and horrors perpetrated by one-party totalitarian states and dictatorships. Rupert Murdoch is vilified for his ruthless pursuit of a all-encompassing dominance of the media. It seemed tennis would be dominated by Roger Federer for years and as a result many of us yawned. What we desire is competition. Dialogue. Friction. And this has generally manifested itself in duopolies. The twin ideologies of communism and capitalism shaped the latter half of the twentieth century precisely because they offered two radically different worldviews. Rupert Murdoch’s rivalry with Robert Maxwell allowed for a more intense battle for the Fourth Estate’s heart and soul. And nobody can deny that Rafael Nadal’s emergence and challenge to Federer’s all-conquering achievements has been nothing but a force for good for the game.

However much we may say we need more voices and more say, we always settle for these duopolies. Hence, the reluctance of the coalition government to make significant strides to cement the urge for proportional representation which was so audible in the days following the hung parliament but has subsequently receded in the memory with the onset of more pressing political concerns. Labour and Conservative. Adam and Eve. Salt and Vinegar. Hoddle and Waddle. The list goes on…

Which brings us back to Chelsea. Chelsea as a club is the manifestation of the New Money which entered the country at the beginning of the last decade. Their success was borne out of a need to achieve results with little thought for cultivation and sophistication. There is no real reverence for traditional hierarchies for this club and this nonchalance has allowed them to remain at the game’s pinnacle for the best part of a decade. Where Manchester United have built their reputation upon history, tragedy and a dedication to youth development, Chelsea have bought and outfought their opponents. Two ideologies. Everybody else therefore, has to pick a template from which to model their blueprint for success under the current hegemony of the Big Two. You can either throw money at your quest in the hope that it will garner trophies like Chelsea and Manchester City or you can build from within like Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Until a new philosophy emerges to challenge and break the stranglehold it will remain the same for the foreseeable future. Thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. Like I said, Chelsea are awesome. West Ham are in the firing line in two games time. It could have been so different.

Back to the Future

15 Aug

The commencement of a new domestic season after a World Cup traditionally brought with it the excitement and anticipation of prospective marquee signings of players who shone on the world’s biggest stage. This has regrettably failed to materialise this year, despite Manchester City’s best efforts, and the dominant mood is one that points towards a deeper malaise which the game in England now finds itself in.

English football was finally forced to look at itself with objective eyes in South Africa and with the absence of a pantomimic scapegoat to hang the team’s premature exit from the tournament on, we have all been forced to re-assess what exactly the English Premier league is supposed to represent. Despite the screaming protestations of Sky’s marketing department that we still possess the ‘most exciting league in the world’ and the feverish adverts heralding the start of the season, it is apparent that these claims have never seemed more hollow. Before a ball had been kicked, teams had been condemned to relegation, others neatly placed into mid-table positions of mediocrity. Meanwhile, a select few clubs with sufficient financial clout will be fighting out for the Champions’ League places which leaves the behemoths of Manchester United and Chelsea to battle it out for the title. The ease with which these predictions can be made does not indicate a competitive edge despite what many will have you believe while taking sideswipes at inferior sides in the same breath. Was anybody truly surprised to see Chelsea’s systematic demolition of a poor, newly-promoted West Brom yesterday? If football is that predictable, should we even bother any more?

With the element of surprise seemingly neutered, the game has also added an extra depressing layer which contributes to the sense of gloom which currently pervades. As I talked about extensively during the World Cup (see clones), the game in 2010 is severely absent of what we might loosely term as ‘heroes’. Football players, for a variety of reasons, have become so far removed from the fans that it is increasingly more and more difficult to justify such unswerving loyalty to a club. The incessant badge-kissing loses meaning when a perceived talisman like Wayne Rooney can wantonly abuse his elevated position with barely thought out criticisms of those who pay his wages.

Perhaps it was as a response to this growing mood of disenchantment that Match of the Day’s opening title sequence for this season spliced footage of current Premier League stars playing alongside former greats. It seemed to be an admission that the current crop of millionaire footballers, despite the endless endorsements and rigorous pursuit of physical perfection, remain anonymous and bland when compared to the names which have graced the game in years past. When you see Eric Cantona or George Best with arms aloft in celebration, the graceful movement of Glenn Hoddle or the rugged perseverance of Paul McGrath on your screen before the action of the day begins, you are forced as a viewer to cast your mind back to a fast-receding memory of the past and subsequently fall in to the trap of wallowing in a sea of nostalgia.

A lot of the leading clubs have also embraced this need to hark back to a perceived better time in football. Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham have all released kits which are heavily influenced by those they had previously adorned in the 1980s. It’s as if, they’re telling us, that the need for innovation has gone. Retro shirts, dvds and re-runs of past matches have never been more popular.

Such regression often occurs when times are uncertain. The ongoing financial woes that the world finds itself in understandably forces people to assess their own lives and when what lies ahead isn’t so clear or optimistic, it is easier to grip onto a past memory or activity that provided both comfort and happiness when we were younger. Comparisons can be made with the world of cinema to prove the point. Hence the re-makes of beloved films and television shows such as the A-Team and Karate Kid which have been dominating cinema screens since the end of the World Cup. Or Sylvester Stallone’s assemblage of a cast of 80s action heroes for The Expendables allowing us to remember a time in history when heroes were clearly good and villains fiendishly and overtly bad. Even Toy Story 3, despite its billing as a children’s film, has reduced many adults to tears as they are forced come to terms with the realities of growing up in an age  which values stylish sophistication over simplistic substance.

Despite this, Blackpool’s dismantling of Wigan showed that there is still joy to be had in seeing ‘the little man’ have his day in the sun. In Ian Holloway, Blackpool have a manager who is unconventional, forthright and very much a human figure who is not content to view post-match interviews as exercises in public relations. Blackpool’s adventures will hopefully provide us with many highlights during the season.

Still, the reality remains that a small cabal of clubs will continue to run the English game for the foreseeable future. Watching Nottingham Forest and Leeds battling it out in the Championship this afternoon was a stark reminder that the days when a small, provincial club could conquer the best Europe had to offer are well and truly behind us. The DVDs are there for us to watch to our hearts’ content. What we desperately need in the game now is a plan for the future. Or even just a character. So when the 30 year-old fan sits down to have a moan about the modern game in 2030, he’ll have something to truly bore his kids about. It’s time to let Bobby Moore and all the others finally rest.

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